The issue of intent, and what exactly is meant by this in understanding child or adolescent to parent violence and abuse, is a complicated one that has generated significant discussion over the last year particularly. It has been suggested (Thorley and Coates) that we are better served by an overarching understanding of young people’s family violence, with a division between those who act aggressively with intent, and those we would struggle to understand doing so. Others disagree, and this has sparked thoughts that perhaps we are misusing the word, and that we should go back to basics in our understanding of how we use this terminology in the wider field of domestic abuse.
I was musing along this line with Kate Iwi, and persuaded her to write something for us!
In the adult domestic violence (DV) field it’s often noted that even in the heat of the moment when a perpetrator says he ‘lost it’ and ‘saw red’ he is still accountable for his behaviour. In part this is because they clearly still retained some control, in the sense that they are setting limits to the level of abuse they are prepared to use. After all, if you are stronger than the other person and/or there are potential weapons around, and you’ve not killed them yet, then you must be setting limits. It’s also noted that victims of DV learn to tread on eggshells – they avoid doing the things that seem to trigger the violence. The aggressor gets their way. Its often concluded that for adult perpetrators, ‘violence is intentional’.
In the field of working with adolescent to parent violence and abuse (APVA) there’s a lot of discomfort with the idea that children’s violence is ‘intentional’ or that they might be able to exert coercive control over their parents, even though parents speak similarly of treading on eggshells and about feeling controlled and fearful. The discomfort with the concept of ‘intent’ is about accountability and it leads into a growing debate about strategies like consequences.
After all if a child didn’t intend to control their parent, then consequences are seen as unfairly punitive and ineffective and instead trauma-informed teaching of better coping mechanisms and self-regulation is preferred .
Let’s explore this thinking. Imagine a parent tells their child to switch off a game or film, is ignored at first, then shouts at the child, who in turn flies at them and hits them. In which of the following scenarios is that child’s violence intentional:
- The child is neuro-typical and has suffered no trauma or neglect. They could just as easily not fly at their parent, but they consciously choose this strategy because it works.
- The child is neuro-typical for an adolescent – they use aggression consciously to get what they want because their capacity for empathy and morality remain insufficiently developed to choose otherwise.
- The child is neuro-typical but suffered trauma or neglect when younger– they have strong reaction to conflict and feeling controlled, and being told off triggers extreme dysregulation.
- They might be autistic and/ or have an ADHD diagnosis.
Frankly, the first of these is the only one we’d likely call coercive control in a teenager – but also it’s by far the least likely. Few young people are thoughtful and premeditated about their aggression. Few are cooly disciplining their parent. This would be rare even amongst neuro-typical adult DV perpetrators. Very few people are calm and conscious of their intent to discipline another when violent – even when that’s the impact they have.
Most people are usually dysregulated when violent (in fight mode – amygdala active – adrenalin pumping) to some degree. They feel ‘out of control’, they ‘see red’, they ‘lose it’. How can such abuse be seen as intentional with all the inference of self awareness and conscious choice?
The problem is that violence does work to control others because it’s functional – and when others back off and tread on egg shells, that functionality is reinforced. And we make lots of choices of behaviours that we’ve learned are functional – without any conscious intent at all. Take walking down a crowded street while chatting on the phone. All conscious attention is on the conversation, but hundreds of choices about how to speed up, stop, and dodge sideways are made – all functional – but with no conscious intent.
Maybe it’s better to think of violence as functional than intentional. That doesn’t mean that we can’t help people make the choices conscious – bring our attention to them and choose alternatives in a very conscious way – or that we might simply learn to do something different when the aggression stops working. In this sense wherever violence is functional – and that’s in all of cases 1 to 4 above – consequences can work. Not consequences that create more dysregulation (like blaming, shaming or meeting aggression with aggression), but at the very least the consequence that the violence stops working – and ideally that a consequence that creates additional cope-able effort or discomfort for the young person as well at a later point when they are calm again.
On the other hand, since most young people are always also dysregulated when aggressive – learning to cope and self-regulate better is also vital for almost all of them.
The idea that some young people using APVA need trauma-informed containment, help regulating and coping, while others need rewards and consequences is in my view un-necessarily divisive. I’m going to hazard a guess that 98% of the young people we work with need a bit of both.
This is certainly a complex issue, and I suspect it is one which touches on how people experience the label of ‘intent’ as much as the action itself, in their personal lives. Thank you Kate, for bringing your experience to bear and broadening the discussion further.
As always, further comments and discussion are welcomed!